The city of Zephyrhills lost its bid to purchase Hercules Park, but there is hope still that a large swath of the park and its aquatic center can become city property.
The Pasco County School Board unanimously voted to begin negotiating the park’s sale with developers from Gh&G Florida LLC. Their bid for $2.3 million topped Zephyrhills’ bid of $1.7 million for the 15.5-acre park.
But Deputy School Superintendent Ray Gadd said any deal brought back to the school board must stipulate that between 10 acres to 11 acres of the park would be donated to the city of Zephyrhills.
The acreage would include a fitness trail, the children’s playground and the aquatic center.
School board member Allen Altman said he agonized over his vote.
He explained: “We just don’t have the ability to turn down additional money right now.”
The school district is recovering from significant budget cuts resulting from the economic crash in 2008. The lack of funding for capital improvement projects is critical, said school board member Cynthia Armstrong.
“It is our constitutional duty to do fiduciarily what is best for our people, our students, who are also the people in Zephyrhills,” she said.
Other board members echoed those sentiments despite impassioned pleas from Zephyrhills’ Mayor Gene Whitfield and others to accept Zephyrhills’ bid.
“I’m disappointed,” Whitfield said. “We want the park. We’ll do everything we can. We’ll wait to see what they offer and proceed from there.”
Prior to the school board’s vote, Whitfield recounted the park’s history. He described a “handshake” agreement nearly 50 years ago between Hercules Powder Co. and the school district that the park would be used for children and for education but not for commercial use.
At one time Hercules Powder Co. was the largest employer in Zephyrhills. The company processed pine stumps into rosin, turpentine and pine oil on about 80 acres. The property later became sites for the park, Zephyrhills High School and Woodland Elementary School.
Some residents had feared that a gas station would be built on a corner lot at U.S 301 and County Road 54, adjacent to the park. But a $1.7 million bid from Del Lago Ventures Inc., affiliated with Race Trac Petroleum Inc., was rejected.
Belleair Development Group, with a $1.6 million bid, also lost out.
“Something needs to be worked out, because we in Zephyrhills need that (park),” said resident Fern Williams. “I’m not even seeing what your vision is with a gas station on that corner.”
In April, school officials announced plans to put the corner parcel on the market for commercial sale. Zephyrhills’ City Council previously agreed to rezone the site with expectations that the school board would consider leasing the remaining acres to Zephyrhills for $1 a year for 100 years.
City and school officials have somewhat different recollections on what happened next.
Gadd said as far back as 2011, the school board raised the possibility of a lease, but city officials rejected the offer.
Following the recent rezoning of the corner lot, he presented the lease option to the school board but never heard back from Zephyrhills for follow-up. City officials said the lease agreement would have precluded them from applying for grants. Buying the property was the best option, they said.
The city planned to use several funding sources including Community Development Block Grants and the Penny for Pasco program. The bid also included the right to sell about 2 acres, south of the corner lot. City officials said, if they needed the funds from the lot’s sale, it would be developed for a purpose compatible with the park.
The future of the park has been under discussion since Pasco County’s decision to close it nearly four years ago. County officials said the county could no longer afford to operate and maintain the park and its aquatic center.
Under a prior agreement, the park had to be used or returned to the school district.
School officials estimate that Zephyrhills could receive about $50,000 annually in property and gas tax revenues if the deal goes through with Gh&G.
Zephyrhills’ officials dispute those numbers, saying the city will receive very little from gas taxes.
They peg property tax revenues at about $6,000 a year.
Gadd said school officials are in agreement with Zephyrhills on the goal to reopen the park and see the pool again hosting swim meets.
During the long closure, he said the pool has been vandalized and homeless people have been found living in the woods.
Law enforcement has been called there on several occasions.
“To me its sad to see the pool has fallen into disrepair,” Gadd said.
Zephyrhills’ City Manager Steve Spina remains hopeful of a good outcome.
“I understand their position,” he said of the school board’s vote. “I think it’s good if they can work it out, and we get the bulk of the land. It’s a win-win.”
Published June 24, 2015